Prodigy Who Dared Formulate a Soviet Economic Theory Is Born

Economics was loathed in Moscow but Leonid Kantorovich, Soviet patriot, insisted on sharing his theories in order to beat back the Nazi threat.

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Nobel laureate Leonid Kantorovich.
Nobel laureate Leonid Kantorovich.Credit: Commons

January 19, 1912 is the birthdate of Leonid Kantorovich, the mathematician and economist who, out of love for his country, took on the dangerous task of developing rational economic theory for the Soviet Union. Not only did Kantorovich survive long enough to die a natural death (in 1986), he was also the only Soviet economist to win the Nobel Prize in that field, an honor he shared with Dutch-American economist Tjalling Koopmans, in 1975.

Leonid Vitalevich Kantorovich was born into a Jewish family in St. Petersburg in czarist Russia. His father, Vitalij Kantorovich, was a physician who specialized in sexually transmitted diseases; his mother was the former Natalie Saks.

Kantorovich was only 14 when he began studying at Leningrad State University (SPSU), in 1926. Nine years later he earned his Ph.D. in mathematics, by which time he was already a full professor at both SPSU and at the Institute of Industrial Construction Engineering.

Very practical in Soviet Russia

Although initially Kantorovich’s work was in the area of pure mathematics, his move into practical applications began when, in 1938, he was called in as a consultant to the Laboratory of the Plywood Trust. His task was to devise a formula for maximizing plywood production, based on the available supply of lumber, labor, power and other resources.

In the decades following the Bolshevik Revolution, economics was a stagnant science at best. The joke was that the best economists were candidates for “Special Stalin Prizes”: First prize was execution, second a term in prison camp, and third prize was exile.

Yet Kantorovich, who toward the end of his life told an interviewer of his conviction that “it is the scientist’s duty and right to tell the truth,” deliberately moved from the theoretical to the practical during the darkest years of Stalinist rule.

In their introduction to a 2002 Russian-language volume about Kantorovich, the editors, V. Kantorovich, S. Kutateladze and Y. Fet, quote their subject as saying that he was very much aware that “the world was under the terrible threat of the brown plague, the German fascism.” It was his perception that it was “the state of decision-making in the economy that restricted [the USSR’s] industrial and military power.” The authors say it is this “feeling of civil duty rather than a scientific interest that can explain the repeated attempts to put his ideas into practice and a persistency sometimes close to recklessness.”

To the rescue of Leningrad

During World War II, Kantorovich was involved in creating and operating the “Road of Life” wherein, during the winter months of late 1941 through 1944, the frozen Lake Ladoga was utilized to bring food and supplies into, and residents out of, besieged Leningrad. Kantorovich calculated the safe combination of ice thickness, weight, temperature and distance between vehicles that would allow for trucks to traverse the lake, and he himself guided vehicles over the ice.

Despite numerous invitations to visit institutions abroad, beginning in the 1950s, the first time Kantorovich was permitted to leave his homeland was in 1975, when he traveled to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize. He and Koopmans were given the award for their contributions to “the theory of optimum allocation of resources.”

Kantorovich is credited with developing linear programming, which allows for resolution of complex mathematical problems. He had the audacity to be the first economist in the Communist U.S.S.R. to suggest that there should be a correlation between the price of a commodity and its relative scarcity. His professional longevity can perhaps be attributed to his care in not spelling out the political implications of his calculations.

Leonid Kantorovich was married to Natalya Ilyina, a medical doctor, with whom he had two children, both of whom became economists. He died of cancer on April 7, 1986 at age 74.

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